A Solid Encore Performance That Sets The Stage For A Real Showstopper.
Set in a fictionalized, steampunk version of Japan’s Taishō period, Sakura Wars—released as Shin Sakura Wars in Japan—is a soft reboot of SEGA and developer RED Company’s long-running RPG series that first appeared on the Saturn in 1996. The game puts players in the shoes of Seijuro Kamiyama, a navy captain who, after an incident that cost him his ship, has been reassigned to lead the Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division. While seemingly an ordinary theater troupe, in reality, this group is an all-female fighting force that acts as Tokyo’s first line of defense against invading demonic forces.
Unfortunately for the young captain, by the time he assumes his new role, the Flower Division has seen better days. Almost as soon as Kamiyama walks in the door of the Grand Imperial Theater, which serves as the unit’s secret headquarters, he is told by the Flower Division’s commander, Sumire Kanzaki, that the group is flat broke and will likely soon be disbanded. That is unless they can make a name for themselves at the Combat Revue World Games. In this Olympic-style event, Combat Revues from all over the world pilot mechs compete for fame and glory. Heavily-armed mechs aren’t cheap, though. So to come up with the cash to compete in the contest so they can prove their worth, the members of the Flower Division also need to become bonafide theater stars. No pressure, right?
It’s a weird premise to be sure. One minute you could be promoting the theater’s next show to the city’s residents in a mechanical elephant suit, only to find yourself hacking waves of hellspawn to bits in mech-based melees moments later. Still, its quirky nature is a big part of what makes Sakura Wars so appealing in the first place.
Read My LIPS
Sakura Wars’ gameplay loop consists of two modes; adventure segments and mech-based battles against the demon hordes. By far, the most common of the two is the adventure sections. During these scenes, you’ll explore the theater and the surrounding area of Ginza as you interact with the leading ladies of the Flower Division and move the game’s story forward. Sure, you might hit the town on a date or save the occasional cat burglar caper, but you’ll usually be helping one of your teenage teammates resolve some deep-seated issues from their past that are holding them back. And to do this, you’re going to need to do an awful lot of talking.
Most of the crucial conversations in Sakura Wars use LIPS. Short for “Live & Interactive Picture System,” LIPS allows you to choose from multiple dialog options within a strict time limit. The way you answer these dialog choices can have a lasting impact both on the story and that particular character’s trust level with Kamiyama. Build up a character’s trust enough, and they’ll perform better in battle, learn to execute powerful co-op attacks, and even present you with romantic opportunities between missions.
Without question, Sakura Wars features more dialog segments than I have ever seen in a JRPG in all of my 35+ years of gaming. These long and involved chats easily take up the lion’s share of the game’s roughly 25-hour story and are often bookended by lengthy cutscenes, which can make it feel like a much more passive experience than other games in the genre. Those who prefer more action in their RPGs may find this focus on endless dialogue to be a bit disappointing. I didn’t mind this too much, however, mainly because the writing and voice performances in Sakura Wars are so exceptional, with the latter easily rivaling SEGA’s Yakuza series, which kept me glued to the story in all of its soap opera-esque melodrama from start to finish.
While the LIPS system is nothing new for the franchise, the way SEGA has managed to overhaul the combat mechanics in this reboot is bound to be a bit more divisive for longtime fans. Since its inception in 1996, Sakura Wars grid-based mech melees have been a strategic affair. This time around, the game’s battles have a lot more in common with Omega Force’s Musou games than the Shining Force -inspired titles of old.
Each chapter typically ends with some sort of demon-filled dungeon where you and a couple of Flower Division members will charge through largely linear corridors, hacking away at waves of demons to reach the area’s boss enemy. Combat feels fast, snappy, and satisfying. Tapping the circle button will perform a light attack while pressing triangle will execute a more powerful, but slower, attack. As you destroy enemies, they’ll drop spirit shards, which will gradually fill your spirit meter. Once this gauge is full, you can execute a devastating Spirit Attack with the potential to wipe out every on-screen enemy. There’s also a very Bayonetta-inspired dodge system here, where performing a perfect dodge will slow time to a crawl, allowing you to deal massive damage to your opponents and even perform one-hit executions.
Again, if you’ve played a Warriors game before, then this will all come as second nature. What’s here is time-tested and works fine for the most part, But Sakura Wars’ combat isn’t without its share of issues. For starters, flying enemies can be a nuisance to deal with thanks to the game’s low-slung camera and finicky lock-on system. Additionally, there’s a real lack of enemy variety. You’ll be battling subtle variations of the same four or five enemies for the entire duration of Sakura Wars’ story. A half dozen more enemy types would have gone a long way towards making Sakura Wars’ combat so much more exciting.
Another issue that can be rather annoying is the game’s tendency to bombard you with information that’s important to the story right in the heat of battle. There were numerous times this forced me to stop fighting so that I could quickly read the text at the bottom of the screen before it disappeared, which is much easier said than done given how much chaos is unfolding on the screen at any given moment.
My biggest complaint about Sakura Wars’ action segments is that there isn’t much challenge to found, apart from some of the later races against the clock in the Combat World Revue part of the story. Enemies typically deal very little damage to you, and healing items and spirit shards rain from shattered enemies like demonic pinatas when destroyed. There were several occasions where I was able to topple a boss enemy with a single spirit move, which almost made me want to refrain from using them altogether, which is disappointing.
But again, the combat isn’t the star of the show in Sakura Wars. There are roughly a dozen story battles in the game, which range from a few bite-sized skirmishes to lengthier dungeons that clock in at about 15 minutes’ worth of combat. However, those itching for more fights can use the computer in the basement of the theater to participate in a number of virtual battles to improve your trust level with your teammates. More than anything, though, they serve as a way to spice things up before the next major story arc.
As Lovely As Cherry Blossoms In Bloom
In terms of presentation, Sakura Wars is easily one of the most eye-catching anime-style JRPGs I’ve ever seen. The game’s lushly detailed character models, right down to the NPCs that populate Ginza, look fantastic, and their motion-captured animations seem very natural. The environments also feature lots of small details that make them pop, like real-time reflections on mirrors and other glossy surfaces.
Sakura Wars also features over 40 minutes of CGI cinematics courtesy of Japanese animation studio Sanzigen. And, as you’d expect, these look brilliant and do an excellent job of bringing the more spectacular moments of the game’s story to life.
As exceptional as the game looks, it sounds even better. From the busy horn sections that fill the air on the bustling city streets to the triumphant main theme, series composer Kohei Tanaka’s arrangements masterfully match the drama unfolding on-screen at all times. The voice acting is also top-notch, with veteran Sakura Wars talent Michie Tomizawa’s performance as Flower Division commander Sumire Kanzaki and Ayane Sakura’s portrayal of Sakura Amiyama being the standouts of the bunch.
The recently released Final Fantasy VII Remake may raise the bar for technically impressive JRPGs released this year. Still, Sakura Wars’ superb production values look spectacular in their own right and easily stand as some of the most attractive anime-inspired visuals seen to date.
A Welcome Reboot For A Classic Series
SEGA’s Sakura Wars reboot marks a welcome return for a series that’s gotten criminally little exposure to western audiences since it first released nearly 25 years ago. While the game’s real-time, hack-and-slash approach to its combat left me wanting more, the superb writing and lovable cast of characters kept me glued to my controller right to the very end. And with multiple endings and romance options to unlock, I hope to do it all again very soon.
That said, I really enjoyed my time with Sakura Wars. But again, I have to stress that it probably isn’t for everyone. Those wanting a more cerebral combat system like the previous games in the series will likely be let down by this reboot’s relatively mindless melees. And with only a handful of locations to explore, players hoping for a world-spanning adventure certainly aren’t going to find that here. However, if you don’t mind either of these things and just want to experience a great story full of colorful characters and lots of mech-filled melodrama, this is an adventure worth adding to your PS4 library.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS4; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: Sega CS2 R&D; Release Date: April 28t, 2020; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher.